Arsenal play their last Champions League group match on Wednesday night in Greece against Olympiacos. Arsenal need at least a two goal margin or a 3:2 victory in order to pip the Greeks for second place in what originally looked like a straight-forward group after the initial draw.
As a warm-up, we have prepared a brief look back in time at the previous final matches of the UCL group stage.
We were eliminated before Arsene Wenger’s second string strengthened with David Seaman, Steve Bould and Nicolas Anelka visited…Greece. We faced Panathinaikos and won in a meaningless match 3:1 thanks to Luis Boa Morte’s brace scored either side of Anelka’s goal. We ended third in the group, behind the group-winners Dynamo Kyiv and unlucky runners-up Lens. Only Dynamo progressed from the group as Real Madrid and eventual winners Manchester United were the two best runners-up.
Again, our last match turned out to be a dead rubber for the wrong reasons. We were eliminated before our visit to Sweden as Louis Van Gaal’s Barcelona and the Fiorentina of Gabriel Batistuta – just like Lens had done a year before – exploited our decision to play home matches at Wembley. We won against AIK 3:2, thanks to Marc Overmars’ brace while Davor Šuker scored our third goal of the game.
This time we actually played our home games at Highbury. We secured our progress from the group stage with two games to spare and top spot was sealed in our penultimate group match with a 4:2 victory over Sparta Prague in a game that was memorable for a spectacular solo-effort from a extremely talented Czech player Tomas Rosicky. Our last game didn’t mean anything to us but it did for Shakhtar – the Ukraine side won 3:0 and continued their European campaign in the UEFA Cup.
Another dead-rubber for us as we had already qualified with a 3:1 victory over Mallorca at home. Our last match was again away from home, this time we paid a visit to Schalke 04. The Germans won 3:1 and Sylvain Wiltord got a consolation goal for us. As you might have remembered, later that season Wiltord scored a slightly more important away goal.
We had qualified before the last match but it wasn’t a meaningless one. Borussia Dortmund had been top of the group thanks to Tomas Rosicky’s brace against us so we had to get something from the match against PSV at home. A rather nervy game ended 0:0 but Borussia Dortmund slipped to second after a defeat to Auxerre.
The Invincibles hadn’t been in a good position after the first three games in the group but two consecutive victories returned us to the driving seat. We needed a victory against Lokomotiv Moscow to secure top spot in the group with a note that we could have been eliminated with a draw if Inter Milan had won in Kyiv. Robert Pires and Fredrik Ljungberg did the job for us as we won 2:0 but the Russians were happy after the game as well as they progressed to Round of 16.
We needed a victory against Norwegian side Rosenborg to secure our place in the Round of 16 and a little help from Panathinaikos against PSV to get top spot as well. We gave Rosenborg a good hiding with 5:1 victory – Jose Antonio Reyes, Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, Robert Pires and Robin van Persie were responsible for the crowd on the score-sheet.
Both Arsenal and Ajax had known before their last group match that Arsenal would progress in first place and Ajax as the second-placed team. The game ended 0:0 and it would have been forgotten if it hadn’t been a part of our incredible streak without conceded goal in Champions League.
We needed at least a point from Portugal to secure progress from the top spot. Both Arsenal and Porto needed just a point to get out of CSKA Moscow’s reach. The game at Dragao ended 0:0 and we won the group.
We had secured progress before the last match against the once crowned European champions Steaua Bucaresti but there was a slim chance for us to get top spot as well. We won against the Romanian side 2:1 with goals from Abou Diaby and Nicklas Bendtner but Sevilla didn’t slip in Prague against Slavia so we had to settle for second place in the group.
After a late Nicklas Bendtner strike against Dynamo Kyiv in the penultimate group match had secured us a place in the Round of 16, our visit to Porto was about the top spot battle. The Portuguese side didn’t let us through their fingers this time and won 2:0 to pip us to first place in the group.
The first of three visits to Olympiacos. We had secured top spot in the penultimate match while Standard Liege could have progressed at the expense of Olympiacos if results had gone their way. The Greeks kept second place for themselves though with a narrow 1:0 victory over us. It’s worth noting that our second string didn’t consist of just players like often-mentioned Thomas Cruise but also Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott.
We had something to hope for from our last match – we could have won the group with a victory over Partizan Belgrade if Braga had won in Ukraine against Shakhtar. We won against the resilient Serbian champions 3:1 (Van Persie, Walcott and Samir Nasri were the scorers) but Shakhtar won against Braga and secured top spot.
The second dead rubber in Piraeus ended with Olympiacos’ victory again. Given that we had secured top spot with a game to spare Wenger opted for a second string again, this time strengthened with captain Thomas Vermaelen. Our starting line-up had some interesting names like Francis Coquelin, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Andrey Arshavin and Yossi Benayoun (via uefa.com). Olympiacos won 3:1 with Benayoun scoring a consolation goal for us and Vito Mannone conceding one of the most bizarre goals ever in the competition but a late come-back of Olympique Marseille in Dortmund against Borussia condemned Greeks to a third-place finish.
Even if we had secured progress to the Round of 16 with a game to spare, there was still something we could have gained – top spot. We needed a victory in Greece and a little help from Montpellier against the group leaders Schalke. Arsene Wenger didn’t believe in that scenario so he rotated the squad a lot with first-team players like Wojciech Szczesny, Vermaelen and Gervinho combined with Ramsey, Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jernade Meade (via uefa.com). However, things had been going our way as Tomas Rosicky gave us the lead while Montpellier had been holding Schalke to a draw but the Greek side completed a come-back in the last 25 minutes of the game.
Arsenal had entered the match against Napoli as the group leaders. We hadn’t been safe for the Round of 16 yet as Napoli could have knocked us out of the competition with a 3:0 victory provided that Borussia Dortmund would beat Olympique Marseille. We gave a pretty bad performance as Mikel Arteta was sent off and Napoli came just one goal short to knocking us out of the Champions League.
Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal had secured qualification with a game to spare but we could have won top spot if the results had gone our way. We won 4:1 in Istanbul against Galatasaray with Lukas Podolski and Ramsey scoring a brace each. Ramsey’s volley was so spectacular that it was later voted for in Arsenal’s Goal of the season poll (via Arsenal.com). However, Borussia didn’t allow any surprises in their match so Arsenal had to settle for second place…Again.
We have been in situations where we had to win in order to secure our place in the Round of 16 (2003-04, 2004-05) but on both occasions a draw could have worked for us as well. This time we have just one option and that option is a victory. By 2 or more goals.
We have so often managed narrow escapes as seen above, and we can certainly do it again if the Gunners can build on the momentum from the weekend’s victory over Sunderland and our win over Dinamo Zagreb.